Alumnae look to change the digital conversation

Digital assistants like Alexa and Siri have become so integrated into our daily lives that most people don’t question their existence. But several Yale alumnae are thinking deeply about chatbots, as these assistants are known, and the cultural implications of these technological helpmates.

Alison Greenberg
Alison Greenberg ’14 B.A.

Alison Greenberg ’14 B.A. runs a conversational design studio in the Bronx called aflow, creating talking databases and brand engagement chatbots for companies and nonprofits. She is often one of the only women in the room at industry meetings. Women make up just 12% of artificial intelligence (AI) researchers and only 6% of software developers. She says the fact that technology moves fast, and that AI is primarily built by men, has major implications for our collective cultural future.

Conversational AIs are creeping into our consciousness,” Greenberg says. “We forget we are building culture and creating behaviors.”

Greenberg is part of a panel discussion on “Feminine Chatbots” happening June 1 in Los Angeles. The panel features a number of alumnae, including Lina Chen ’08 B.A., co-founder of Nix Hydra, which develops online games for women, and Samantha Culp ’04 B.A., a journalist and film producer who recently completed a documentary series for Netflix. Moderator Janna Avner ’12 B.A. assembled the panel as part of a larger festival she co-founded called FEMMEBIT, which celebrates female-identifying tech artists in L.A.

Janna Avner
Janna Avner ’12 B.A.

Avner majored in art and English at Yale and says studying oil painting and Chaucer gave her a foundation to explore new ideas. “The arts are an innovative space,” Avner says. Living in L.A., she found that women artists and creative professionals working in technology had shared interests and common purpose but says “no place was showcasing them exclusively.” This is her fourth year running FEMMEBIT, which brings creative women in and around tech to the forefront, with panels, exhibitions and performances. She says the chatbot panelists will discuss everything from how these digital assistants support industries, to questions about their gender, and how the robotic female phenomenon plays out across popular culture, from the 2015 movie “Ex Machina” to the HBO fantasy series “Westworld,” to the Gimlet Media podcast “Sandra.”

The kind of chatbots we have are increasingly important as we enter the digital age,” Avner says. “This is a technology that augments and improves customer service — and almost all companies are trying to integrate it.”

People already regularly talk to chatbots – nearly half a billion people use Siri, Apple’s digital voice assistant — and chatbots are regularly subjected to insults and sexual harassment, notes Avner. This May, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization released its first recommendations for countering gender bias in applications using AI. They include: ending the female default gender for digital assistants; developing a gender-neutral machine voice; and programming digital assistants to discourage abusive language. Virtue, the creative agency run by Vice Media, has created its own version of a genderless voice called “Q” that it is in the process of pitching to tech companies. 

Samantha Culp
Samantha Culp ’04 B.A.

Culp teaches and writes about the intersection of art and AI and says she’s particularly interested in the “role of chatbots as a narrative device in fiction, storytelling and art.” She points to L.A. artist Lauren McCarthy who installed custom-designed smart devices in people’s homes for 24 hours and interacted with them as a real-life Alexa. “We have to question why Siri or Alexa is a woman,” Culp says. She references the 1927 silent film “Metropolis,” which features Maria, one of the first female robots. “There is a lot of interesting feminist theory around the robot as woman,” Culp says.

Greenberg can trace a direct line from discovering anthropology at Yale to her current work in developing genderless chatbots saying, “Anthropology was the start of my interest in culture, behavior, and their influence on modern society.” She says chatbots have an important role to play in our collective future. “Chatbots democratize and simplify information,” she says. “I’m excited by a future informed by these forms of AI, and how gender can — or may not even need to — play a part.” 

The panel discussion on Feminine Chatbots will happen June 1, 11:30 a.m. PST and will be livestreamed on the FEMMEBIT Facebook page by FEMMEBIT member, Eva Aguila, founder of COAXIAL ARTS Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit multi-disciplinary media arts organization devoted to the support of media, sound, and performance art.

This panel is sponsored by the Yale Alumni Art League, with community partners including: Kevin Winston of Yale in Hollywood, YaleWomen, Yale Tech, and Careers, Life & Yale.

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